Big-Screen Bereavement: The Best In Your Widow-Type Movies – “Sleepless In Seattle”

Long before I was known as a someone who writes about grief, a subject no one wants to be an expert in, I wrote about movies, something everyone wants to be in expert in. For about ten years, I had a column called “The Flick Chick,” offering snarky, funny (I hope) takes on film, inciting the wrath of “Love, Actually” fans everywhere. (Because I’m not one of them.)

For the first time in almost 30 years I find myself not being paid to write about entertainment, which means that when live events start again I’ll have to pay for them. Also, I miss that outlet, starting those cultural conversations and having virtual high-fives across the Internet. So since I’m paying the fees for this website anyway, I’m starting an occasional series blending the two things I know the best – the joy of the movies and the soul-crushing devastation of widowhood.

Who’s with me?

Up first: 1993’s “Sleepless In Seattle,” which I first saw in 1993 and fell in love with because of the dreamy soundtrack, its bittersweet take on the difference between being in love and being in love in the movies, and its gorgeous views of my native Baltimore, which I’d left the year before and wouldn’t move back to for another 27 years. (It also features my favorite celluloid description of being a Features reporter faced with yet another hoary holiday story: “New Years Eve. Please don’t make me write it.”)

Now, as a widowed parent, the story of soulfully sad Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan), the winsome Baltimore Sun reporter who falls for his honest and heartbreaking radio account of how much he misses his late wife, hits closer to home. It’s also a reminder that in 1993, being played by America’s Sweetheart Meg Ryan meant that it wasn’t immediately obvious that a character was an obsessed stalker who uses company funds to fly cross-country to follow a widowed man and his vulnerable child. But more about that later.

One of things that didn’t really compute for me when I saw this in my 20s is that “Sleepless In Seattle” isn’t really a rom-com in the traditional sense, where a character’s past is what’s holding them back from finding love with the perfect person who’s right there if they’d just look up. It’s really about loving while grieving, opening yourself up to happiness when your first happiness got ripped from you. One of my least-favorite things about how widows are usually written in Hallmark movies is that the protagonist is usually the cute lady who falls in love with the sad widowed carpenter or farmer thus proving her own character growth. The late partner is a plot device, a ploy to make the character extra-super sad so you know what the stakes are. So sorry, Dead Wife! He’s moved on!

But here, Sam’s wife, played in flashback by Carey Lowell and her flawless pixie cut, is more than the catalyst for his next happy ever after. She’s the reason for the whole thing, and how he and his son Jonah grapple with her loss colors their relationship with each other and with everyone else they know, including Annie. Sam moves them to Seattle from Chicago because he wants to be in a city where, he says, he isn’t haunted by memories of his wife walking across the street. I heard that and I was like “Damn! What widow wrote this? Because THIS IS THE TRUTH.”

Sam is trying to hold it all together and make a life for his grieving son, who wakes up in the middle of the night crying for his dead mother and is afraid of forgetting her face, which seems like a betrayal. And he can’t stop it. Sam wants to make it OK and start over but he can’t give him or his son the thing they really want, which is Carey Lowell and her pixie cut back on this side of eternity. And, again, they can’t.

Before, I would have said that my favorite scene was Rita Wilson trying to describe “An Affair To Remember” through a series of sobs and hand motions, a thing that should have gotten her an Oscar nomination. But now, it’s when Sam, fresh from comforting Jonah (who is an insufferable brat that I now give some credit because of his grief), imagining talking to his wife. And he, too, is haunted by the specter of forgetting – He imagines her not being able to remember the toast she used to make. And it’s gutting. I had to stop the recording for a minute and take a breath, remembering talking out loud to my husband who could no longer hear me. And it was all there – the love, the regret, the melancholy realization that in your head is the only way you’ll hear their voice unless it’s on video.

I remember a lot of critics and fans were annoyed that Annie and Sam (spoiler alert!) don’t meet in person until the last scene, standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, like in “An Affair To Remember.” Before that, he’s a voice she hears on the radio, and she’s one of the women who writes to him, moved by his pain. She never actually intends to send the letter (her best friend does), but Jonah reads it and becomes convinced that she’s the one for him and his dad, writing his own letter back to her pretending to be Sam. In him, I see my own kid, who has now started asking for a new dad, and who sees himself as my protector (Oww, painful heart feels.)

Jonah’s still a brat – the way he speaks to his dad is written as cute when it’s worth at least a hell of a grounding, but his actions are that of a grieving kid. The person who really deserves a stern talking-to, if not a restraining order, is Annie, who projects her boredom with her perfectly nice fiancee Walter (Bill Pullman, who, as he tells her later, deserves better) into a fantasy obsession with Sam. In the movie’s most “Did y’all actually write that?” moment, Annie hires a private investigator to look into Sam and Jonah, under the guise of writing a story on Sam, and flies to Seattle to hide behind buildings and watch them. It’s not charming. It’s creepy. As much as I always loved the ending, where the three meet in New York and there seems to be a spark, I always wonder if Annie ever says “So…I kinda stalked you and your kid.” Because that’s not cute. (I also wonder if she ever reimbursed The Sun for all that travel.)

I still love “Sleepless In Seattle,” just differently. I no longer see myself as Annie, the wistful dreamer looking for love, but as Sam, trying to make sure his heart hasn’t died along with his wife. While so many widow movies seem to think that being ready to date means you’re healed and moving on, “Sleepless In Seattle” reminds us that your late love never leaves you. They aren’t something to get over, a glitch. Any new life you have is built on the one you had, and even if you find happiness again, you’ll always be that person’s widow.

There was always a sadness to this movie that I got – I mean, it was about a man who lost his wife, right? But now I understand that the point isn’t whether Sam finds love with Annie, or whether they’re meant to be. It’s that he’s opening himself up to that possibility. Maybe not with a stalker. But to love.

“Cry and Cut”: Grieving into action in a sucky time

Forgive my impertinence bringing up a long-ago pop culture moment as the fate of our nature is hanging in the balance – and if you don’t believe that you aren’t paying attention.

But I am reminded, in this bleak time, of an episode of “Project Runway” from way back in 2006, which seems like a fairyland in the sky compared to now. A contestant named Kara was having a freak-out during a partner challenge, which was taking up valuable time from the work she and partner Zulema had to design. I don’t think there’s one person who hasn’t been faced with enormous pressure and felt like curling up on the floor surrounded by all the ice cream and wine and sobbing. All of the sobs.

Kara was having one of those moments, and Zulema, who hadn’t signed onto this show to be a therapist, figured out a way to acknowledge Kara’s frustrations while keeping it moving. “You’re gonna cry,” she said, “AND CUT.”

In other words, cry all the tears you have to cry, get in them feelings and let it out, but only if you can do that while cutting fabric and making a pretty outfit and not making me have to deal with Michael Kors’ efforts to be clever while crushing my dreams.

And this is where we find ourselves. We’re in a pandemic. We have elections coming up. The West Coast is burning. Our heroes our dying. Shenanigans are afoot. Racists abound. It’s not good here. We are scared. We should be scared. And it would seem appropriate to panic, give up, sob and flee to Canada. However, Canada doesn’t currently want us, so that’s not an option.

I want to cry – I have cried. But I know that sinking into despair doesn’t lead to much more than more despair and a very wet shirt. What we can do is to let that fear, sadness and anger turn into action. We must vote. We must raise awareness and use our voices and pain to inform each other. We must check in on each other and raise ourselves up. We have a choice to make about what kind of country we want to be, what kind of people we want to be.

Grief is tiring, strength-sucking and awful. But if we are going to survive, we have to gather the shards and make them into something. We have to rest when we must, feel our feelings and name them.

But we can’t stop moving. We can’t stop cutting.